Jeanette describes her childhood home on Water Street in Accrington. It was a narrow house with an outside toilet known as the “Betty.” Until she was fourteen, Jeanette slept in the same room as her parents—when she was fourteen, they divided the space and added a bathroom upstairs.
The Winterson home was small and antiquated, and Jeanette was given no privacy within it for much of her life.
Though the outside toilet was a “good” place—clean, whitewashed, compact, and the perfect place for reading books in secret, the coal-hole outside—the family’s underground coal bunker, which they used to store the coal needed to heat their house—was “not a good place.” Jeanette was often locked down there as a punishment—sometimes, she says, “a whole day went by before punishment was meted out, and so crime and punishment seemed disconnected.” As a result, she hated Mrs. and Mr. Winterson “with the hatred of the helpless; a flaring, subsiding hatred that became the bed of the relationship.”
Jeanette’s punishments are revealed to have been cruel and unusual—the family’s reliance on coal provided them with a claustrophobic and dirty space, a space that they made into a hellish chamber for Jeanette. Because her punishments were doled out so long after her “crimes,” she was unable to connect her actions with their consequences. The story of her life thus became one of a single unending and unfair punishment.
Jeanette describes the north of England—historically largely working-class—as a “routinely brutal world” in which physical abuse and punishment were widely accepted. To this day, Jeanette writes, she experiences violent tendencies of her own when angry, but thinks “it is better to [be aware of] who you are, what lies in you, what you might do under extreme provocation.”
Some time after Mrs. Winterson died (which occurred when Jeanette was an adult), Mr. Winterson married his second wife, Lillian. A few years after the marriage, Jeanette recalls, he began hitting Lillian. One day Lillian called Jeanette to tell her that they had been throwing things at each other. Jeanette had never seen her father hit Mrs. Winterson, and he only ever hit Jeanette under Mrs. Winterson’s instructions. When Jeanette arrived at her father’s house, there was broken crockery all over, and Lillian was visibly bruised and upset. Lillian told Jeanette that there was no crockery left, as she had forced Mr. Winterson to throw out Mrs. Winterson’s extensive collection of Royal Albert china when they married and start over.
The influence of violence and the desire for control continues to plague the Winterson family even after the death of Mrs. Winterson. Lillian has made an effort to rid her and Mr. Winterson’s relationship of any remaining symbols of Mrs. Winterson, but the effects of the Wintersons’ strict and claustrophobic life together remain.
Jeanette took Mr. Winterson out on a drive, and when she asked him about the fight, he stayed silent for half an hour before breaking down in tears and beginning to tell Jeanette about the war—he had been in the D-Day landings. After explaining his difficulty recovering from the violence of the war, he worries aloud to Jeanette that Mrs. Winterson will not forgive him for remarrying—he confesses that he is “frightened,” and Jeanette thinks he seems like “a little boy,” and realizes that perhaps he always has been.
Though Mrs. Winterson is not the sole cause of Mr. Winterson’s continuing misery, her memory continues to haunt him. As Mr. Winterson tells Jeanette the story of his life, Jeanette realizes that her father has never “grown up” out of the fear and misery that he retained for so many years, and she feels a burst of compassion and pity for him.
Jeanette takes Lillian shopping for more crockery. Lillian disparages Mrs. Winterson’s old china, and berates her for having abused both Jeanette and Mr. Winterson.
Lillian continues to lament the effect that Mrs. Winterson has had on both Jeanette and Mr. Winterson—and also mocks the china, the physical symbol of Mrs. Winterson’s influence.
Jeanette writes that her mother “married down,” and as a result wanted to find a way to show everyone around her that “even though [she wasn’t] better off, [she was] better.” The Royal Albert china was an easy way to do so—and as Mrs. and Mr. Winterson saved their pennies to purchase more and more china, Jeanette, too, found herself swept up in “Royal Albert fever.” The china was one of the only things that made her mother happy, though “happiness was still on the other side of a glass door” for Mrs. Winterson.
The one thing that brought Mrs. Winterson happiness was the Royal Albert China—however, it only made her happy because it was a way for her to assert her dominance over those around her. Moreover, Mrs. Winterson had to keep the china locked up in a cabinet—she picked as an object of her happiness something that she could not interact with daily, and something that could be easily shattered.
Jeanette describes her home life as “a bit odd.” She did not go to school until she was five years old—her grandmother, her mother’s mother, was dying, and the Wintersons were living with Mrs. Winterson’s parents. Jeanette adored her grandmother, and was the one who found her when she died. The Wintersons soon moved back to their narrow home on Water Street, and Jeanette says that this is when she believes her mother’s depression began. Jeanette describes her “odd” childhood and home life in a series of vignettes meant to illustrate the chaotic and distrustful nature of the “Winterson-world.” Mr. Winterson was always either at the factory or at church, while Mrs. Winterson stayed home depressed and languorous most days and sat up awake all night most nights, reading the Bible or baking. Jeanette’s mother watched her constantly for “signs of possession,” and when Jeanette began masturbating around the same time she lost hearing in her ears (due to a problem with her adenoids), her mother blamed the affliction on Jeanette’s badness. When Jeanette was in the hospital having her adenoids out, she was seized with panic, as she believed her mother was taking her to have her “adopted again.”
As Jeanette delves into the peculiarities and problems of her home life, she attempts to pin down the root of her mother’s depression—and, by proxy, to impose a narrative on the story of her mother’s suffering, and thus her own as well. Jeanette was always eyed with suspicion, and as she grew older and discovered her body, she began to fear—due to her previously-mentioned inability to intuit the link between her behavior and her severe, abusive punishments—that she would once again be “dislodged” from the only place she knew as home.
Jeanette did eventually start school a year late, though her mother believed schools were a “Breeding Ground” for sin. Jeanette was a “bad” child and was given bad reports in school, and often spent her time doodling “picture of Hell which [she] took home for [Mrs. Winterson] to admire.” Jeanette left the school after burning down the play kitchen, and her headmistress told Mrs. Winterson that Jeanette was “domineering and aggressive.” Mrs. Winterson, as she had when Jeanette was a baby screaming day in and day out, once again came to believe that Jeanette was “demon possessed.”
Jeanette was growing up in her mother’s image—she was “domineering and aggressive” and obsessed with images and ideas of Hell, just like Mrs. Winterson. But rather than recognizing her own behaviors reflected back at her in Jeanette, Mrs. Winterson believed that Jeanette was “possessed,” and blamed it all on the Devil rather than take any responsibility for her daughter’s development and actions.
When Jeanette switched to a school farther from home, she did not come home for lunch—instead she took slices of white bread and cheese with her, as the Wintersons had no money for school lunches. Jeanette notes that no one at her school thought this odd—“there were plenty of [other] kids who didn’t get fed properly.”
Poverty was rampant in Jeanette’s working-class hometown, and while she felt different from her classmates in other ways, her lack of “proper” nutrition was not any particular source of shame or stigma, as it was in many ways the norm.
In the Winterson house, a coal fire provided heat, and Jeanette was in charge of getting it started up in the mornings. Mrs. Winterson would stay up all night, and sleep during the days. Jeanette describes her mother as a “solitary woman who longed for one person to know her,” and wonders if the fact that she now feels she knows her mother, years after her mother’s death, is too little, “too late.”
Jeanette has come to understand a story of her mother’s life in which Mrs. Winterson was a complicated figure—however, Jeanette does not know if it’s redemptive or useful to be able to see her mother and know her in this way so many years after the dissolution of their relationship, as well as Mrs. Winterson’s death.
Jeanette reflects upon the fact that her home “did not represent order and did not stand for safety,” and that she left it at the very young age of sixteen. Just as her mother was unable to build a home for her, Jeanette finds that it is now difficult for her to share a home with anyone else. She has a terrible need for “distance and privacy” because Mrs. Winterson “never respected” her privacy while she lived at home. She never had a key to the narrow house on Water Street, and was entirely dependent on her mother’s mood to be let in or allowed out. Now, in her adult life, Jeanette says that the door to her home is most always open.
Though Mrs. Winterson attempted to create a controlling, ordered environment for Jeanette to grow up in, her actions had the effect of throwing the entire Winterson household into a cycle of despair and chaos. The effects of this continue to plague Jeanette as an adult, though she has done and continues to do all she can to counteract them and pursue her own sense of security and happiness in the homes she has lived in as an adult.
Mrs. Winterson, Jeanette says, lived in the same home from 1947 until she died in the year 1990. Her mother “hated the small and the mean, and yet that is what she had.” Jeanette then describes the series of large houses she has bought for herself in adulthood—houses that she says she has bought for herself, and “for the ghost of [her] mother.”
Everything in Mrs. Winterson’s life seemed to turn out opposite to how she hoped or dreamed it would. By attempting to exert so much control over her own life—and the narrative of her own life—Mrs. Winterson actually created a lot of pain for herself and inspired both revolt and revulsion in her only daughter. Only after Mrs. Winterson’s death has Jeanette been able to, in some way, seek to honor her mother’s “ghost.”
Jeanette feels that the house of her childhood is “held in time or outside of time,” and reflects on the difference between locked and unlocked time, as well as the repetition of religious and cultural rituals that allow a certain moment in time to be entered again and again.
As an adult, Jeanette is unable to fully escape the orbit of her childhood traumas. Time is something she thinks about a lot, and the ways in which humans seek to recreate, reexamine, or reenter periods of time that are long gone is a motif throughout the remainder of the text.
When she left home at the age of sixteen, Jeanette writes, she bought herself a rug, and the rug became a staple of wherever she lived as she bounced from place to place. She knew that the “safe place” of her home could not help her anymore. Though leaving was not the “sensible” thing to do, and though she experienced a time of “mourning, loss, [and] fear,” it was a risk she had to take.
Jeanette has learned how to make a home for herself over the years, despite the initial fear and risk in striking out on her own as a young teen. She has had to recreate the story of her own life as one she could live with—and through.